Stargate’s Long and Winding History Led to a Surprisingly Good TV Movie
Sometimes a love of the source material can overcome a small budget.
There’s not much coming through the Stargate these days. The franchise hails from the early ‘90s, a time in media as different as any era the show’s heroes visited. The original Stargate movie, directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, was a precursor to Independence Day’s success: aliens, explosions, scientists clashing with the American military.
Its initial funding came from Carolco Pictures, an independent studio that had been behind movies like Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Basic Instinct, but had fallen on hard times. Unable to handle the distribution, it made a deal with MGM. As co-writer Dean Devlin told Forbes in 2018, “Every single studio in Hollywood rejected it, they all said science fiction is dead...We found out that MGM had a hole in their distribution schedule, they had no films to release for a couple of months, and so we convinced them to release Stargate.”
All of this is to say that Stargate underwent a tremendous amount of contractual wrangling before its release. No one expected Stargate to gross nearly $200 million, but its sudden success meant MGM wanted to keep the franchise going on its own terms. While Emmerich and Devlin imagined a big-budget trilogy, MGM moved the franchise to TV and looped them out of the creative process.
This tumultuous process gave birth to Stargate SG-1. The show’s narrative would begin on TV in 1997 and end in 2008 with Robert C. Cooper’s direct-to-DVD Stargate: The Ark of Truth. It concluded the arc of the Ori, beings claiming to be gods who’d become the primary antagonists in the show’s final two seasons. The result is a storyline that has advanced in entirely different directions than one imagines Emmerich or Devlin taking it, but that still captures some of their grand sense of adventure. It’s worth understanding some Stargate lore to make sense of it all, but it’s a fun TV movie.
Crucial to the story is the complex relationship between the Ori and the Alterans, who used to be one people but split over philosophical differences. As the Ori began to present themselves as gods and encouraged their followers to become more militaristic, the Alterans developed a weapon to stop the growth of the Ori and their new religion. Called the Ark of Truth, it’s essentially a brainwashing device, but it can only brainwash people into believing true statements, like the fact that the Ori are not gods.
The movie’s opening shows the Alterans making a moral decision to not use the Ark, a choice that reverberates all the way to SG-1’s present, where our heroes are looking for it. They think they find it, but it’s a trap. An Ori priest figure known as a Prior and Ori troops led by Tomin (Tim Guinee) interfere. But the Prior is killed, shocking Tomin and his men.
Mitchell (Ben Browder), Dr. Jackson (Michael Shanks), Vala (Claudia Black), and Teal’c (Christopher Judge) take Tomin back to Stargate command and plan an assault on Ori space to grab the real Ark. Slick government lackey James Marrick (Currie Graham) must tag along too, much to the crew’s dismay.
As Stargate fansite Gateworld noted in its 2008 review of the straight-to-DVD movie, Ark originally came with a nine-minute bonus feature called “The Road Taken,” which summarized two years of the Ori plotline. Gateworld called the recap “absolutely vital for viewers who are not up to speed with Ori lore,” and that’s true for those who will want to understand every line of dialogue. But if you’re okay with missing some finer details, Ark of Truth is still a fun sci-fi romp.
The quest for the Ark takes some twists, and an argument over how to defeat the Ori and their followers emerges. It’s a classic debate: brainwashing or genocide? But Stargate isn’t Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and doesn’t want to bog itself down in philosophical debates. The result is a movie that keeps humming along.
While never quite leaving the made-for-TV realm, Ark of Truth uses a sweeping score and well-composed visuals to push the medium as far as it could go. It’s clearly a labor of love, made for the diehards who stuck with the franchise through many, many reboots. It might not be the best entry point into SG-1, but catching up on some lore makes the movie hit all the right notes of sacrifice, honor, and adventure.